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Pure Awareness

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Centering Prayer

Pure Awareness
Thursday, February 16, 2017

Guest writer Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer.

Attention, as we normally understand it in the West, is implicitly an energy connecting subject to object: “I pay attention to my driving.” “I pay attention to the lecture.” “I pay attention to my breathing.” But there is also a different configuration for the attention, in which it does not flow in a straight line linking subject to object, but can rather hold a certain tensile strength as a three-dimensional field of awareness. The best way I can describe it is through a beautiful metaphor from Rumi: “quivering like a drop of mercury.”

When removed from its container and allowed to organize itself on a flat surface, mercury can either act like a liquid and spread out in a puddle, or it can hold its own shape as a drop, rolling about like a Weeble (the children’s weighted toy that will wobble but won’t fall down). Your attention is much like that. In its “liquid” form, it connects subject to object. In its solid, “Weeble” form, it is a tensile field of vibratory awareness, within which you can be conscious of the whole without having to split the field into the usual subject/object polarity. It is actually a higher energetic state. The Tibetan Buddhists call it rigpa: “pure awareness.”

I have come to suspect that the contemplative masters of our own Christian lineage were also well aware of this state and that this is actually what is intended by the word “vigilance” in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and “recollection” in the West. It doesn’t mean thinking deeply about something, recalling it. Rather, it means that you yourself are gathered—“re-collected”—within that deeper inner attentiveness whose much more powerful energetic vibrancy allows a different mode of perception to unfold.

In the nanosecond between the cessation of one thought and the arising of the next, there is a moment of pure consciousness where subject and object poles drop out and you’re simply there. For a nanosecond, there’s no “you” and no God. No experience and no experiencer. There’s simply a direct, undivided, sensate awareness of a single, unified field of being perceived from a far deeper place of aliveness. And what is first tasted in a nanosecond can indeed become a stable and integrated state.

As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing puts it, you “pay attention not to what you are, but to that you are.” [1] With all due respect to our author, I might amend that slightly to say you pay attention from what you are: from that deeper pool of recollected selfhood. There is a deeper current of awareness, a deeper and more intimate sense of belonging, which flows beneath the surface waters of your being and grows stronger and steadier as your attention is able to maintain itself as a unified field of objectless awareness.

Gateway to Silence:
Return to God.

[1] James A. Walsh, ed., The Pursuit of Wisdom and Other Works by the Author of the Cloud of the Unknowing (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988), 221.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Shambhala: 2016), 129-130, 134.

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